Thursday, March 9, 2017

Enforced common sense

From How Iceland Got Teens to Say No to Drugs by Emma Young.
Today, Iceland tops the European table for the cleanest-living teens. The percentage of 15- and 16-year-olds who had been drunk in the previous month plummeted from 42 percent in 1998 to 5 percent in 2016. The percentage who have ever used cannabis is down from 17 percent to 7 percent. Those smoking cigarettes every day fell from 23 percent to just 3 percent.

The way the country has achieved this turnaround has been both radical and evidence-based, but it has relied a lot on what might be termed enforced common sense. “This is the most remarkably intense and profound study of stress in the lives of teenagers that I have ever seen,” says Milkman. “I’m just so impressed by how well it is working.”


Milkman started coming regularly to Iceland and giving talks. These talks, and Tindar, attracted the attention of a young researcher at the University of Iceland, called Inga Dóra Sigfúsdóttir. She wondered: what if you could use healthy alternatives to drugs and alcohol as part of a program not to treat kids with problems, but to stop kids drinking or taking drugs in the first place?

Have you ever tried alcohol? If so, when did you last have a drink? Have you ever been drunk? Have you tried cigarettes? If so, how often do you smoke? How much time to you spend with your parents? Do you have a close relationship with your parents? What kind of activities do you take part in?

In 1992, 14-, 15- and 16-year-olds in every school in Iceland filled in a questionnaire with these kinds of questions. This process was then repeated in 1995 and 1997.

The results of these surveys were alarming. Nationally, almost 25 percent were smoking every day, over 40 percent had got drunk in the past month. But when the team drilled right down into the data, they could identify precisely which schools had the worst problems—and which had the least. Their analysis revealed clear differences between the lives of kids who took up drinking, smoking and other drugs, and those who didn’t. A few factors emerged as strongly protective: participation in organized activities—especially sport—three or four times a week, total time spent with parents during the week, feeling cared about at school, and not being outdoors in the late evenings.
So what did the Icelanders do?
Laws were changed. It became illegal to buy tobacco under the age of 18 and alcohol under the age of 20, and tobacco and alcohol advertising was banned. Links between parents and school were strengthened through parental organizations which by law had to be established in every school, along with school councils with parent representatives. Parents were encouraged to attend talks on the importance of spending a quantity of time with their children rather than occasional “quality time”, on talking to their kids about their lives, on knowing who their kids were friends with, and on keeping their children home in the evenings.

A law was also passed prohibiting children aged between 13 and 16 from being outside after 10 p.m. in winter and midnight in summer. It’s still in effect today.

Home and School, the national umbrella body for parental organizations, introduced agreements for parents to sign. The content varies depending on the age group, and individual organizations can decide what they want to include. For kids aged 13 and up, parents can pledge to follow all the recommendations, and also, for example, not to allow their kids to have unsupervised parties, not to buy alcohol for minors, and to keep an eye on the wellbeing of other children.

These agreements educate parents but also help to strengthen their authority in the home, argues Hrefna Sigurjónsdóttir, director of Home and School. “Then it becomes harder to use the oldest excuse in the book: ‘But everybody else can!’”

State funding was increased for organized sport, music, art, dance and other clubs, to give kids alternative ways to feel part of a group, and to feel good, rather than through using alcohol and drugs, and kids from low-income families received help to take part. In Reykjavik, for instance, where more than a third of the country’s population lives, a Leisure Card gives families 35,000 krona (£250) per year per child to pay for recreational activities.
Strengthen families, increase the amount of time children spend with parents, make discouragement of anti-social behaviors the norm, engage children in activities which interest them. Sound familiar? If you grew up in a middle or upperclass family, it should. This is what every family does. Enforced common sense indeed.

It is what Charles Murray documented in Coming Apart . One of his key findings was that the top quintile of people had excellent socioeconomic outcomes: low divorce, high education attainment, high community engagement, low drug use, low alcohol abuse, low teen pregnancy, low out of wedlock births, etc. These were all desirable social norms successfully facilitating good life outcomes. Murray observed, however, that top quintile people never advocated for what they actually did.

In fact they were much more "tolerant" advocates for looser social mores. They would express libertarian tolerance bordering on advocacy for recreational substance use, alternative lifestyles, casual sex, divorce, etc. There was an almost pathological aversion to passing judgment on others's (dysfunctional) behaviors. Murray commented something to the effect that bottom quintile people were living the lives articulated by the top quintile and suffering outrageous social dysfunction for it while at the same time the top quintile were living the complete opposite of what they were expressing tolerance for and thereby achieving greater success. The top was effectively saying, sotto voce, middle class values for me but not for thee.

Deirdre McCloskey provides copious documentation of the beneficial attributes of the middle class (family, education, engagement, self-control, etc.) in her Bourgeois trilogy: Bourgeois Virtues, Bourgeois Dignity, and Bourgeois Equality.

The final linking thought is that originated by Clay Shirky in his Cognitive Surplus. Shirky postulates that there is always a residual inclination to self-medicate against stress and anxiety of social (economic, technological, etc) change. I commented about this idea in The ability to fall apart a little bit at a time and in Cannot imagine the harsh and silent world I am describing.

In periods of rapid change (economic, social, technological, etc.), there is a human inclination to seek analgesics in alcohol and drugs. The best prophylactic is strong intact families involved in their children's lives and who model classic bourgeois behaviors and who ensure the active engagement of their children in constructive activities.

All makes perfect common sense. The actual capacity to achieve that in a republic with great social and cultural heterogeneity is likely challenging. But failure to find a means of doing so implies a willingness to accept the disparate impacts described by Murray.

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